Still waiting on Trader Joe’s

by Jeff Sykes

It wasn’t quite as epic as Howard Roark’s speech toward the end of Ayn Rand’s seminal novel, The Fountainhead, but when construction magnate John Lomax put the bloggers on one side and the “people trying to do good things” on the other you could tell a point of moral certitude was at hand.

“If Greensboro is not growing, what is it doing?” Lomax said. “It’s dying. We have to have growth and developers are growers. We’re the people that make things happen in Greensboro.”

Lomax was one of two developers lamenting the loss of a potential Trader Joe’s grocery on Friendly Avenue while blaming bloggers, negativity and an organized cadre of area residents they said lacked a sense of reasonableness regarding commercial development.

The conversation took place during a lunch panel sponsored by SynerG held at Action Greensboro’s new offices on Church Street. The wide-ranging discussion saw moments of division between the head of a neighborhood opposition group and the developers on a couple of occasions, but leaned more toward a Monday morning quarterback session following the boutique grocer’s awkward ditching of plans to open in the Gate City.

The session ended with former Mayor Jim Melvin expressing concern about the city’s overall lack of income growth in the last decade. Melvin characterized Trader Joe’s rejection of the city as “a tremendous black eye.” “That sends a terrible message out to other potential growth,” Melvin said. Melvin echoed sentiments expressed by panelists Tony Collins and John Lomax. The two developers were joined on the panel by Mike Kirkman, the city’s zoning director, and Scott Kinsey, who headed the Friendly Coalition, a neighborhood activist group opposed to future commercial development between Friendly Center and Quaker Village.

Collins, a former member of the Greensboro Zoning Commission and a cheerleader for the Trader Joe’s project, dominated the panel discussion at times. He said the Trader Joe’s plan was a near textbook example of reasonable transitional commercial development in a high traffic area.

He cited the Battleground Avenue corridor as an example of bad zoning completed one parcel at a time. In this case, Collins said, a group of homeowners worked together to achieve a unique project.

“The moon and stars were kind of lined up on this one,” he said. “You had five property owners holding hands to do something.”

Kinsey, the head of the opposition group, said many residents were opposed to the rezoning of the residential properties to commercial. The site in question includes six lots zoned for single family at the intersection of Friendly Avenue and Hobbs Road. The site is across Hobbs Road from the edge of the Shops at Friendly Center.

Lomax and Collins took a didactic approach to suggestions that the site should remain residential in perpetuity. Lomax revisited his youth spent along Friendly Avenue, having grown up near the intersection with Muirs Chapel. He said he watched Friendly grew from two lanes to four and eventually five.

“It became a behemoth,” Lomax said.

“Growing up on Friendly Avenue in a single family residence is not the best place to raise a child or have pets. It’s dangerous.”

He agreed with Collins, and the city staff assessment, that the development fit the character of the area and was a reasonable use of that land. He warned that future developers looking to put in town homes or apartments might not agree to the same conditions the Trader Joe’s project included regarding building height and buffers.

“Pick your poison, I guess,” Lomax said.

“You don’t want this development with these huge conditions in place that could make the neighborhood less affected. But what’s the next zoning that is passed? It may be worse.”

Collins and Lomax both said that the issue became larger than the site itself and the individual rezoning question once the conflict between the neighborhood and the project’s backers hit the press.

“The negative gets all the headlines and the squeaky wheel gets the grease and we’ve got these bloggers in town now who want to pick apart every decision that’s made in the city of Greensboro by city staff, city leaders and developers who are trying to do good things in Greensboro,” Lomax said. Collins reiterated that point saying that Greensboro was being passed over by development money. The city is “off the radar” with developers looking to Nashville and Austin for new projects.

“We can’t just listen to bloggers and we can’t watch single-line negative comments on Facebook,” Collins said. “It gets real negative, real fast.”

Kinsey attempted to point out that in his view as a resident of Greensboro it seemed like there were many new projects and that perhaps one more grocery store on Friendly Avenue wasn’t the city’s top priority. Collins cut him off.

“We’re talking about more than that but this is one small piece of it,” Collins said. “You want to kick Trader Joe’s around and call them just another grocery store.”

He went on to lament the lack of highend retail and cited a former business executive from Atlanta whose wife never moved to Greensboro because of a lack of retail. He mentioned his own family having to drive to Durham to spend money at Nordstroms.

Toward the end of the session former Mayor Jim Melvin spoke from the crowd, expressing concern about the city’s lack of growth.

“We’re becoming a poor city,” Melvin said. “It pains me to say that.” !